Top players looking to score bigger name films

TOKYO– Distributors from Japan have proved themselves to be some of the biggest players at international film markets.

This year, level of competition has been ratcheted up in Japan as the war chests have, or will, deepen for some of the country’s top players who are looking to score rights to bigger name films. Also there are more screens in the country for an audience that is willing to see a wide array of movies.

Two major players — Nippon Herald and Gaga Communications — are looking at going public, possibly this year, giving them an inflow of cash.

And everyone is looking for sleepers like “Dancer in the Dark” and the South Korean pic “Swiri” to score its top overseas box office in Japan.

Sellers beware. These are not the go-go days of the early ’90s when Japan was swimming in money, buying studios with abandon and financing numerous schlock projects. The Japanese competition is still heated, but the players are much more savvy.

Gaga started out aggressively in its acquisitions at last year’s AFM, and should not be losing any steam during this edition.

“We recognize more deeply the importance of having big titles in our lineup,” Gaga prexy-CEO Tetsu Fujimura says.

As one acquisitions agent from multifaceted entertainment company Pony Canyon puts it: “The AFM is an important market for all of us.”

The increase in the number of screens in Japan, fueled by a rapid growth of multiplexes, has led to two noticeable changes in the marketplace that have increased competition among distributors: Blockbuster films can top the $100 million mark here, making Japan the only territory outside the U.S. that can send a movie over the blockbuster triple-digits level. Also, arthouse fare has been able to find a wider audience as Japan has emerged as a territory that can provide between 50% and 99% of the international box office receipts for a movie.

The top movie in Japan last year was “Mission: Impossible 2,” which took in 9.7 billion yen ($82.9 million). Some of the surprises for the year included “The Green Mile,” the No. 2 film of the year, which took in $55.3 million, just a little below its U.S. box office tally of $60.1 million. The Tom Hanks starrer was distributed by Gaga and Humax, a tandem that along with Toho-Towa was also able to score the biggest overseas payday for “End of Days,” taking in $26.9 million.

Distributor Asmik Ace scored the biggest overseas box office numbers in Japan for a couple of arthouse films. “The Legend of 1900″ took in about $15 million and “Dancer,” which is still in theaters, could make it to over $20 million.

Other distribs have taken note of the big moves made by Gaga and Herald, and have tried new routes to get an edge in the more competitive screen scene.

Amuse Pictures teamed with Cine Quanon and found gold with South Korean films in Japan, such as saw “Swiri,” which took in a record of nearly $15 million in its Japan run. It will soon bring two other big Korean films to Japan “JSA” and “The Legend of Gingko,” and it has used the strong B.O. from its other films from the territory to help purchase some larger movies such as “Chicken Run.”

Japan’s movie market posted a 6.5% decline in box office receipts in 2000 even though the number of screens increased by over 10%.

Box office receipts for the world’s second-largest movie market totaled $1.45 billion in 2000 as multiplex building helped push the number of screens up by 303 to 2,524, the Motion Picture Assn. of Japan said in its annual survey.

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